Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 23 July 2021

Welcome to Education Eye, a regular update detailing the policies and stories happening in UK education, compiled by Steve Besley.

What's happened this week?

Important stories across the board:

The summer break arrived this week for MPs and perhaps many teachers, bringing with it five lingering questions. 

First exams, where this year’s results are due out in a few weeks, next year’s are under consultation and questions remain about the very future of some exams at all. 

A lot of policies and a lot of sweat have gone into making this summer’s exam results as fair and secure as possible. Neil Renton, Headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School, provided an interesting snapshot on the HE Policy Institute (HEPI) website this week of just how one school had gone about the teacher assessed grading process. Here’s a snapshot: “On 18 June we submitted the grades, uploading over 4,000 grades for 285 students at GCSE and 300 students at A-level. We had reviewed approximately 19,000 data points for assessed work and the reasonable judgement of each teacher, over a period of three weeks.” It’s been a similar picture in many secondary schools and colleges. 

Many are annoyed that the shift to teacher assessed grades this year has heaped pressure on to teachers. There’s extravagant talk of lawyers at the ready in case of appeals. The four weeks to mid-September when appeals have to be in (schools and colleges may have their own deadlines) should tell us more. As for next year, both the government and the incoming boss of Ofqual are committed to holding exams next summer, with consultation currently out on such modifications as providing advance information about the content of some exams and limiting choice in others. How the next year or so goes will largely determine where we go with exams in future. Two previous Education Secretaries this week have called for GCSEs to be scrapped, but this seems unlikely. More significant will be developments in technology, enabling different forms of assessment and, potentially – according to some in the HE sector – changes to final exams in university, moving to perhaps to a portfolio of evidence. The Times Higher has an interesting commentary this week with views on the matter from different academics. 

Second, recovery or education catch-up. The government is likely to come under increasing pressure in this area as evidence continues to pour in of the impact of lockdown on particular groups of learners. The proposals set out by the former Recovery Commissioner remain popular, but the sticking point continues to be money. The Office for Budget Responsibility suggested recently £3bn for school catch-up, others have gone higher, nearer £10bn, and Sir Kevan Collins had argued for £15bn. It all comes down to the Chancellor’s autumn Spending Review where the begging bowls are already piling up. There’s some talk that the Chancellor may postpone the Spending Review if Covid continues to prove a challenge. Lack of certainty over recovery funding remains a problem. 

Third, what start of term should we expect – be it for schools, colleges or universities? Mounds of guidance have gone out as part of Step 4, but some of it is caveated; much depends on how far there is a summer surge and education providers will be approaching September with extreme caution. Many will be working hard over the summer to ensure things are as secure yet as normal as can be for when learners return, but it remains a worry.

Fourth, there’s some important legislation going through Parliament at the moment, notably the HE Freedom of Speech Bill and the FE Skills and post-16 Education Bill. Both reached important stages this week. The government will be adding further details over the summer and will push on with them when it returns in September in the hope of resetting some important features of the education agenda.

Fifth and finally, will there be a reshuffle? If so when, and what will happen to the Education Secretary? Arguably points 1-4 above will determine that particular wheel of fate.

Back now to other education matters this week where there’s been another burst of reports.    

One of the most significant was the latest State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission. If last week’s speech by the PM on levelling up left many bemused, this report added some sharp perspective if not rocket fuel. In a nutshell, on every measure of low social mobility, ‘child poverty, income inequality, access to stable housing, unemployment for young people, and gaps in school attainment’. Things are not improving and Covid is just making it all worse. The report provides an alarming set of statistics for each nation in the UK and recommends what it calls ‘seven key pillars to build back better.’ For education, these include replacing SATs with a moderated digital portfolio; implementing a 16-19 Student Premium; focusing on digital skills for life and introducing a post-qualification admissions system for HE.

There have also been a number of developments for higher ed people to get their teeth into (or more likely grind their teeth about) this week. They include the latest statement from government on scrapping the London weighting and re-prioritising grant funding away from disciplines like creative and arts subjects towards ‘high-cost, high-value’ subjects. ‘Disappointing’ according to the Russell Group and ‘an act of vandalism’ as the University and College Union (UCU) saw it. Institutional letters go out next week. In addition, in a busy week for the Office for Students, it has launched a further significant consultation on strengthening registration requirements to ensure quality and standards; announced a new Challenge Competition to develop short courses at L 4-6; and confirmed consultation for later this year on the format for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF.)

In Westminster news this week, the Education Secretary made a muted Statement about teachers’ pay and Nick Gibb issued a Statement for MPs setting out the provisional funding allocations for schools for 2022/23 – the last year of the beefed-up settlement first announced in 2019. The Education Committee also held an evidence session on Children’s Homes. The BEIS Dept launched ‘a long-term vision to put innovation at the heart of building back better’ and the Lords continued debating the Skills Bill with powerful contributions from a number of former Education Secretaries. Members this week called for more life skills such as parenting and gardening to be included. 

Finally, in other education news this week, the government confirmed a pay freeze for most teachers this year. It didn’t help that it came out right at the end of term. Both the Social Mobility Commission and the British Educational Research Association called for SATs to be replaced, in the words of the former with various alternatives proposed. Elsewhere, the government published its final progress report on the current apprenticeship reform programme; the Prince’s Trust among others called for a clearer employment strategy for young people; in similar vein the Skills Commission Careers called for improvements for careers guidance into work, and HEPI and the UPP Foundation sampled the public mood on higher education. Views seem to depend on which breed you are: a university pessimist or optimist for example. Links to all this below.

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘Covid: home-educated numbers rise by 75%’ (Monday.)
  • ‘Over 1m children miss school because of Covid’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘Pay review warns of teacher pay freeze ‘severe impact’ (Wednesday.)
  • ‘Students offered cash to defer medical degree’ (Thursday.)
  • ‘Vaccinate all UK university students by September, says union’ (Friday.)


  • PM’s statement on Step 4. The Prime Minister called for a ‘cautious’ approach as he confirmed the easing of restrictions under Step 4, caveating it with a call for those eligible to come forward for vaccinations and for night clubs, and potentially other large gatherings from September, to adopt vaccination passes as a right of entry.
  • Innovation Strategy. The government set out its plans for the UK to ‘seize the moment afforded post-Brexit’ to make the UK ‘a global hub for innovation by 2035’ through building on four pillars: freeing up business, attracting innovative talent, supporting R/D, and deploying innovative technologies. 
  • Future Fund: Breakthrough. The government announced £375m matched funding under its ‘Future Fund: Breakthrough’ scheme aimed at helping high-growth, R/D companies bring innovative technologies to market in areas like life sciences and quantum computing and help drive post pandemic recovery.
  • Trying to understand levelling up. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) highlighted the lack of clarity and strategic direction over the concept of levelling up, calling on the government to clarify its intentions and set up a Cabinet Committee to oversee developments. 
  • Better regulation. The government launched a new consultation streamlining the UK regulatory framework for a post-Brexit world, building on taskforce proposals recommended earlier this year and proposing a set of five principles such as ‘proportionality’ and focusing on what works.
  • Social Mobility. The Social Mobility Commission published its latest State of the Nation report painting a fairly bleak view of the current state of social mobility across the UK with Covid making things worse, calling as a result for significant investment and work around what it called ‘7 pillars of reform’ with early years, education, apprenticeships and career progression all featuring.
  • Building up to the Spending Review. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) along with Citi examined the economic backdrop for this autumn’s much anticipated Spending Review, suggesting that while the economy may be picking up in the short-term, things look less rosy in the medium-term, meaning any immediate give-aways may have to be limited as the Chancellor looks to balance a growing list of demands.
  • National Strategy for autism. The government set out a new 5-year vision and strategy for autism following recent consultation, focusing on six areas including improving access to education and employment, and building community support.
  • Education Inequality. UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) reported on the nature of the disruption caused by Covid to young people’s education and social lives, arguing that it had exacerbated existing inequalities and made the task of social mobility and equity even more challenging.
  • Back to Work. The RSA reported on its survey of the sorts of issues concerning people as they started to return to work, with concerns about a further period of self-isolation, having to survive on sick pay and the limits of the real living wage, all high up there.
  • Low Pay. The Resolution Foundation highlighted the issue of low pay in a new briefing paper pointing to the fact that the lowest-paid workers, many of whom are female, young and working part-time, have often been hardest hit by the pandemic, losing both jobs and hours.
  • Latest labour market picture. The Institute for Employment Studies analysed the latest data on the labour market, suggesting ‘some grounds for cautious optimism’ around employment and numbers of vacancies but seeing things elsewhere ‘subdued’ with p/t work and self-employment down and economic inactivity high.
  • Online Media Literacy Strategy. The government set out plans to coordinate and structure the media literacy landscape by creating a new Framework with an accompanying annual Action Plan starting next year aimed at tackling key priorities such as social media influencers. 
  • #My Hidden Gems. The Federation of Small Businesses encouraged small businesses and sole traders to seize the opening up of society to use social media to promote their wares, using the hashtag #My Hidden Gems. 

More specifically ...


  • Covid testing in schools. Research from the University of Oxford from over 200 schools and colleges undertaken between April and May this year, indicated that daily testing of secondary school pupils, where required, was just as effective at controlling transmission as 10-day isolation periods.
  • Post-exams help. Universities UK and UCAS outlined a range of help, advice and guidance being made available in the coming weeks as students gear up to receive their exam results and consider their future options accordingly.
  • School funding formulae. The government published details of the funding formulae for schools and high needs for 2022/23 claiming an overall increase in funding of 3.2% along with an increase in funding for schools in remote areas and for high needs funding.
  • Performance tables. The government confirmed that performance tables for KS4 and post-16 qualifications (but not primary) would be published for 2021/22 to help with progression and transparency but would couple this with ‘clear messages’ about the dangers of trying to draw too many inferences.
  • School Rebuilding programme. The government launched a new consultation on priorities for the next phase of its school rebuilding programme with a range of factors (anything from loos to fabric) proposed as criteria, along with condition, need and purpose.
  • Teachers Pay. The School Teachers Pay Review Body (STRB) endorsed the government’s proposals that teachers earning below £24,000 should receive a £250 award this year but that the rest of the profession should endure a pay freeze but did point to the enormous pressures on teachers arising out of Covid and called for an opportunity to consider a wider pay review for 2022/23.
  • Pay analysis. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) examined rates of teachers’ pay over the last decade or so and its impact on retention and recruitment in light of the latest freeze, concluding that pay levels now remain 8% lower than before the last financial crisis with some effect on recruitment and retention.
  • A knowledge-rich curriculum. Nick Gibb, the School Standards Ministers outlined the case in a presentation to the Social Market Foundation for a knowledge-rich curriculum, referencing not just E.D. Hirsch but also Gareth Southgate on the way.
  • ITT consultation. Teacher Unions and others called on the government to call a halt to the review of initial teacher training (ITT) arguing that it put forward a set of ‘far-reaching’ proposals that required proper consideration rather than a rushed through consultation over the summer.
  • ITT placements. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) called in a report for MillionPlus, for a better distribution of places and more financial support from government to help schools offer quality initial teacher training places. 
  • No SATs. The British Educational Research Association (BERA) outlined an alternative testing and school accountability system for primary schools in England built around longitudinal sampling undertaken by an independent body rather than mass testing with inspection focused on school improvement as a result.
  • Alternative Accountability. The headteachers’ roundtable group set out a range of thoughts for tackling what it called ‘the unhealthy accountability dynamic in education,’ calling among other things for Ofsted gradings to be scrapped and accountability contextualised.
  • Early years. The Education Policy Institute and the National Day Nurseries Association published their latest survey into the effect of the pandemic on early provision pointing to many having to close, staff put on furlough and increasing pressures all round, concluding that the sector continues to operate in difficult circumstances. 
  • School absences. FFT Education Datalab provided the latest of its helpful little analyses of school absences, in this case looking at absences last week for Years 7-10 concluding that it was the worst week over the academic year, with the North East remaining the hardest hit region.
  • Nesta on EdTech. The innovation foundation Nesta reflected in a new blog, on its work with EdTech and the range of recent developments, highlighting the importance of access, rigour and focus as features for the future.


  • Apprenticeship progress. The DfE provided its final report on the current apprenticeship reform programme as it reached completion, arguing that although the 3m target of apprenticeship starts hadn’t been realised, big steps had been made in improving the quality and diversity of apprenticeship programmes helping set the context for a further wave of development in the future.
  • FE Skills Index. The government published the latest details on its Skills Index which attempts to measure the value of skills supplied by the FE system in England each year, indicating that it had continued to fall largely due to a drop in numbers achieving qualifications, in turn driven by Covid restrictions.
  • Opportunities for young people. Leading organisations, including the Prince’s Trust, the Institute for Employment Studies, and Youth Employment UK, called for a clear employment strategy for young people, many of whom have been badly hit by the pandemic, proposing a three-stage approach of help now through a strengthened September Guarantee, help in the medium term through apprenticeships and kickstart, and help longer-term through co-ordinated government planning and funding. 
  • Careers system. The Skills Commission published its report into the careers system and how best it can help people transition into work, calling for a long-term (5-year) strategy post pandemic, ultimately all-age with easy access to labour market data, all overseen by an employer-led advisory board and with funding committed under the Spending Review.
  • VET and social partnerships. The Edge Foundation reported on its recent series of discussions on Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Social Partnership which had heard from a number of leading contributors extolling the virtues of local co-ordination and devolved policy making.


  • Education Recovery. The University and College Union (UCU) outlined a set of principles for Covid secure post-16 provision for the start of next term including a comprehensive vaccination programme before the start of term, provision of tests and masks, support for mental health, and resources to deliver appropriate forms of learning. 
  • Funding conditions. The government confirmed the funding conditions for the Office for Students (OfS) for 2021/22 with funding ‘re-prioritised’ towards high priority disciplines, now including Archaeology, and weightings removed for London providers, but with proposed increases for student hardship and mental health support.
  • Funding details. The Office for Students reported on responses to its consultation on the government’s proposed conditions of the funding grant for 2021/22, many expressing concern but confirming, following government direction, how it intended to allocate the £1.4bn grant for the year. 
  • Capital bids. The Office for Students invited bids for the remaining capital funding available for 2021/22 where the criteria of relevance, value for money and risk management will be used to determine the success of bids to the £126.3m fund.
  • Quality and Standards. The Office for Students launched further consultation on proposals to strengthen the registration requirements around quality and standards with four core proposals under the so-called ‘B conditions,’ following earlier consultation on some of the key principles 
  • Short course trial. The Office for Students announced it was looking to set up a £2m Challenge Competition for eligible providers to develop short courses at Levels 4-6 that could run between Dec 2020 and March 2021 and support the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
  • TEF Update. The Office for Students confirmed that following the recent independent review, it was aiming to launch a consultation on the future role of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and how it might form part of an overall quality system, what indicators might be used and how it might all operate at a provider level.
  • Ask the public. The UPP Foundation and HE Policy Institute (HEPI) reported on their latest survey, conducted by Public First, into public attitudes on higher ed finding more support for broadening the curriculum than decolonising it, and with mixed views about the value of going to university and whether or not too many people go, with different profile groups holding different views.
  • Graduate outcomes. The government published more data on graduate outcomes, this time using experimental statistics to look at what happened to those who graduated in 2018/19 finding 80% in employment, unpaid work or further study, reflecting a slight (3%) drop in the number in f/t employment, with average salaries of £24k - £27k, though varying by profile and sector.
  • Latest witness session. Professor Juliet Foster reported on the second witness session for the Student Future Commission looking this week at student mental health and student engagement, pointing to the continuing sense of uncertainty and anxiety experienced by many students and highlighting the need for welcoming induction programmes and support groups.
  • Levelling Up? Former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore called, in a speech made last week responding to the PM’s latest presentation on levelling up, for the higher ed sector to use it to help negotiate a wider role with government that recognises their importance to communities and the economy, and thereby to levelling up.

Stand-out tweets

Memorable tweets and posts this week:

  • “Breaking: just spotted two children going to school. Are they the last two kids in Britain whose bubble hasn't yet burst?” | @susiemesure.
  • “It’s the first day of the holidays and my kids are playing schools. They are such nerds” | @secretHT1
  • “Fringe benefit of wfh at the moment: quick lunchtime cold shower in between meetings….” | @jonathansimons.
  • “People want to revolutionize education, reimagine the classroom, dismantle the system and I’m just like how about better training in reading instruction and some basic curricular reform?” | @MrDanielBuck
  • “Graduates should expect to work 12-hour days and 6 days a week to really master their jobs, says JPMorgan exec” | @BusinessInsider.
  • “Some young people begin sentences with the word "wait" now. Is this better or worse than the near-ubiquitous "so"? | @stefanstern.

Stand-out quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “While it is frequently referred to by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet as the central purpose and mission of this Government, it has yet to be defined beyond its aim of ‘improving everyday life and life chances’ -the BEIS Committee scratches its head over levelling up.
  • “I consider that a reprioritisation of this funding is needed to ensure that it is best aligned with Government priorities and supports them” – the Education Secretary sets a funding challenge for universities.
  • “This notion of ‘generic skills’ is one of the most damaging myths in education today” – Nick Gibb sets out his views on a knowledge-rich curriculum.
  • “In this context, the Secretary of State said he was not seeking a recommendation for pay uplifts in 2021/22 for the majority of teachers” – the teachers’ pay review body explains why it’s not suggesting a pay increase this year.
  • “An absolute insult” – one teachers’ union reaction to the pay freeze.
  • “Experts are lining up to tell the government what is absolutely obvious to everyone – that the education recovery package it has so far announced will not address the deep and lasting damage that the pandemic has inflicted on the most vulnerable communities across the country” - the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reacts to the latest Social Mobility Commission report.
  • “This feels very much like an attempt to railroad through a huge change to the model of teacher training provision with minimal opportunity for scrutiny and meaningful feedback” – teacher unions call for a halt to the latest ITT consultation.

Stand-out numbers

The important numbers of the week:

  • £236bn. How much the over 55s look set to borrow over the coming year largely on big ticket items like houses, cars and holidays as confidence in the economy returns, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) and More2Life.
  • 27%. The number of people in a survey who think too many people go to university with 17% saying it should be more and 36% saying it’s about right, according to a new survey by the HEPI and UPP Foundation.
  • 253,100. The number of apprenticeship starts for the first three-quarters of the 2020/21 academic year, down 6.9% on the previous year according to the latest provisional figures from the government.
  • £1.3m. The amount of apprenticeship levy funds that ‘expired’ from the employers’ apprenticeship service account this year, according to an answer in Parliament from the Skills Minister. 
  • x60. How many times more likely you are to get a professional job if you come from a privileged rather than a working-class background, according to a new report from the Social Mobility Commission.
  • 50. The number of schools announced as part of the school rebuilding programme, according to the DfE.
  • 2024. The year when secondary school pupil numbers peak with a gradual drop in the ensuing years, according to latest government projections. 
  • 76.7%. The attendance rate for pupils in state schools in England last week, down from 80.4% the week before according to latest government figures. 
  • 96. The age of the oldest graduate in Britain who has just been awarded a fine arts degree from East Sussex College.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for:

  • Parliamentary recess. (22 July – 6 September.)

Other stories

  • End of term report. A B+/A for teachers but a U for the Education Secretary. That was the end of year report verdict from parents who responded to a survey on the school year from the Mumsnet website. The survey of just over a thousand parents found only 7% happy with the way the government has handled exams and assessments and 46% cautious about the spread of Covid in schools. In contrast, three quarters were happy with how their school had handled lockdown with 40% saying they’d give their children’s school an A grade or higher. 68% even went on to suggest teachers should get a pay rise. Perhaps someone should tell the Chancellor. A link to the story can be found here
  • 2m and counting. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) had an interesting blog this week marking the 2mth hit on its website over the last year or so and listing the top 25 entries most read over the last few years.  As HEPI director Nick Hillman explained “the topic with the most interest over the past six years has been last year’s Level 3 (A-Level / BTEC) results, which take up half of the top 10 including the number 1 slot.” Other topics in the top ten include ‘gender differences,’ ‘degree standards,’ and PhD employment. A link to it all is here.
     That's it for this week and I'm taking advantage of the Parliamentary recess to take a break for the next week or so. Watch this space and/or check-in with my Twitter stream @stevebesley to make sure you don't miss out on the next issue of Education Eye. And if you'd also like to receive a copy straight to your inbox on publication, leave your details . If there's enough interest in an email version, we'll get it organised.

That's it for this week and I'm taking advantage of the Parliamentary recess to enjoy a short break over the next week or so. Watch this space and/or check-in with my Twitter stream @stevebesley to make sure you don't miss out on the next issue of Education Eye. And if you'd also like to receive a copy straight to your inbox on publication, leave your details here. If there's enough interest in an email version, we'll get it organised.

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Steve Besley

Disclaimer: Education Eye is intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments in the education sector. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted by Steve Besley or EdCentral for decisions made on the basis of any information provided.



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